“For half a century, ACA has been providing the world … with advocacy, analysis, and awareness on some of the most critical topics of international peace and security, including on how to achieve our common, shared goal of a world free of nuclear weapons.”

– Izumi Nakamitsu
UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs
June 2, 2022
Greg Thielmann

Take First Strike Against North Korea Off the Table

This article originally appeared in LobeLog. There has been a blizzard of commentaries in recent months on what U.S. policy should be in the face of North Korea’s defiant efforts to develop nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles. It is the habit of U.S. government officials to solemnly warn that “all options are on the table” for dealing with North Korea’s nuclear weapons, including a “preventive” first strike, which would disarm as much of the country’s nuclear weapons capabilities as possible. Yet there is almost complete silence on the illegality and immorality of any such attack and on how it...

Can the INF Treaty Survive? Putin’s New Missile Presents A Major Test for Arms Control

April 2017

By Greg Thielmann

One month into his term of office, President Donald Trump asserted in a news interview that Russia had violated the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, specifying that Russia’s “deployment” of treaty-prohibited ground-launched cruise missiles (GLCMs) was “a big deal.”1

Two weeks later, the vice chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Air Force General Paul Selva, also went public on the dispute, saying in congressional testimony that Russia’s deployment violated “the spirit and intent” of the treaty and that he sees no current indication that Moscow, which denies any INF Treaty violation, intends to return to compliance.2

Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and U.S. President Ronald Reagan shake hands after signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty at the White House December 8, 1987. (Photo credit: Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images)

Although Trump pledged to raise the issue with Russian President Vladimir Putin “if and when we meet,” it is not at all clear what his strategy is for dealing with the matter. How he handles the worsening dispute over INF Treaty compliance will affect his ability to follow through on his stated desire to make deals with Putin on other issues. Even with Republican Party control of the executive and legislative branches of government, Trump’s flexibility will be constrained by questions about whether his campaign colluded with Russia in the 2016 elections and by the large number of arms control skeptics and Russophobes among Republican members of Congress.

Making History

It is difficult to overstate the impact of the INF Treaty on the course of modern European history and the evolution of the international security order.  Along with the Soviet Union’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, Moscow’s failed attempt to expand its monopoly in long-range, nuclear-tipped theater missiles marked the twin military policy disasters of the regime’s last decade.. At the same time, Moscow’s partnering in the elimination of an entire class of U.S. and Soviet nuclear weapons in U.S. and Soviet constituted one of the world’s most dramatic achievements in curbing the nuclear arms race.

The unprecedented results ultimately achieved by the treaty seemed far from likely in the late 1970s, when the Soviets began replacing their single-warhead SS-4 and SS-5 theater ballistic missiles with the longer-range, more mobile triple-warhead SS-20 missiles. Meanwhile, it was clear then that the prospect of counterdeployments by NATO members would generate serious resistance among European publics long before they would yield effective leverage for negotiating Soviet reductions.

NATO’s “Dual-Track Decision” on theater nuclear modernization and arms control in December 1979 called for deploying 572 U.S. intermediate-range missiles in five countries of the alliance, while offering to negotiate lower limits that would reduce the Soviet missile forces already deployed and the number NATO planned to deploy. Alliance strategists hoped that these new missiles would reduce NATO’s reliance on increasingly vulnerable aircraft based in Europe for theater delivery of nuclear weapons. At the same time, they calculated that beefing up longer-range nuclear forces would facilitate the reduction of some 7,000 shorter-range nuclear weapons, deemed no longer necessary militarily and increasingly burdensome politically.

By the end of 1981, negotiations had commenced in Geneva. The United States opened with a “zero-zero” proposal, offering to cancel plans for future U.S. INF missile deployments in exchange for elimination of all existing Soviet INF missiles. Seeking to prevent the deployment of any U.S. INF missiles, Moscow argued that British and French nuclear forces and U.S. nuclear-capable aircraft based in Europe should be taken into account in calculating the balance, but not Soviet forces based outside of Europe. Over time, Moscow offered some reductions of existing Soviet INF missiles in exchange for complete cancellation of NATO’s planned modernization. Yet, the real action during the first three years of the INF Treaty negotiations was in the streets and parliaments of Europe’s NATO members. After narrowly failing in late 1983 to prevent NATO’s initial INF deployments in the United Kingdom and Germany, the Soviets walked out of the Geneva talks in protest.

Subsequently, the Soviets returned to the table, agreeing to conduct INF Treaty talks as part of broader negotiations that would also include strategic arms and missile defenses. Under new Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, Moscow eventually accepted not only the U.S. zero-zero formula, it challenged the alliance also to eliminate short-range missiles with ranges between 500 and 1,000 kilometers. The anti-nuclear sentiments of President Ronald Reagan and his Soviet counterpart and those of European publics ultimately prevailed over the best laid plans and preferences of many security experts in Washington and Moscow. The INF Treaty was signed on December 8, 1987, and ratified the following year.

Nearly 2,700 missiles were eliminated under the treaty. Equally important was the establishment of new precedents for on-site inspections and other up-close verification measures, paving the way for the first Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), concluded in 1991. NATO’s dual-track approach was considered an impressive application of collective action by the diverse and deeply divided societies of the Western alliance against Soviet threats and intimidation.

Fast Forward

Ironically, Russia’s apparent willingness now to develop and deploy GLCMs in violation of the INF Treaty’s ban on such systems threatens to have equally momentous consequences. If such a serious compliance challenge to the treaty is not satisfactorily resolved or at least managed, it will be very difficult to make further progress on U.S.-Russian strategic arms reductions. Such a failure also could invalidate the assumptions behind the disarmament and nonproliferation commitments incorporated in the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). This pillar of the existing international order is already under threat from the assertion of a right to “go nuclear” by such countries as North Korea and the potential effects of the nuclear ban movement, challenging the bona fides of the five original nuclear-weapon states’ commitment to their NPT disarmament obligations.

Many in Russia have long viewed the INF Treaty as discriminatory to Moscow. They see the treaty as imposing a heavier burden on Russia, which, unlike the United States, is ringed by third countries with nuclear-tipped INF-range missiles. These Russian domestic critics also believe the treaty is inhibiting Russia’s effective use of its nuclear forces to compensate for deficiencies in conventional military capabilities. In the United States, some believe the INF Treaty, whatever the value of its past contributions, is no longer necessary and now represents an undesirable constraint on U.S. pushback against Russian aggression and intimidation.

Despite critics in both countries, the U.S. and Russian governments still pledge fidelity to the treaty. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters March 9 that Russia rejects U.S. violation claims and remains committed to its international obligation “including those arising from the INF Treaty.”3 Yet without movement toward resolution of INF Treaty compliance issues, the prognosis for this treaty is poor, and the prospects for any future nuclear arms reduction treaty will recede beyond the horizon.

Deepening Grievances

The New York Times, citing anonymous U.S. officials, first reported in February 2017 that the INF Treaty-class cruise missiles, which the United States in 2014 accused the Russians of testing, have been deployed.4 This news account said that two battalions of GLCMs, designated “SSC-8” in the West, have been formed, with one battalion “shifted in December from [the] Kapustin Yar [test site] to an operational base.”The deployment news is interpreted by many in NATO as the latest evidence, on top of reckless behavior by Russia’s air and naval forces in the Baltic and Black Sea regions and Putin’s rhetorical nuclear saber-rattling, that Moscow is seeking to intimidate alliance members.

Another cause for concern is Russia’s recent deployment of the SS-26 Iskander-M short-range ballistic missile system into Russia’s Kaliningrad exclave, between Poland and Lithuania, putting a significant portion of Poland within striking distance from Russia’s tactical, ground-based, nuclear-capable missile forces. Such deployments, however, do not violate the letter of the INF Treaty and do not fundamentally alter the strategic equation in the region.

Moscow, meanwhile, expresses similar concerns regarding the reinforcement of NATO combat forces on its periphery. The implementation of a NATO decision to rotate four multinational combat battalions through Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland has prompted Russian complaints that such measures constitute a new security threat and will require countermeasures. Yet in this case too, the impact is more political than military because the regional balance of forces in the Baltics remains overwhelmingly tipped in Russia’s favor.

Of explicit relevance to the INF Treaty, Russia accuses the United States of malign intent in moving forward with the deployment of the more capable Aegis Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) Block IIA missile defense interceptors to neighboring Poland. Moscow previously complained that the “Aegis Ashore” MK-41 launchers for the SM-3 Block IB interceptors deployed to Romania were INF Treaty violations because they had been used previously to launch Tomahawk BGM-109A sea-launched, land-attack cruise missiles.5

Beyond the legal and technical issues is the credibility gap opened by U.S. unwillingness to adapt its Aegis Ashore deployment schedule to the significant diminution in the missile threat from the Middle East against which NATO justifies these deployments. When the Polish missile defense site was planned in 2009, the United States was projecting the near-term possibility that Iranian long-range, nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles could threaten all of Europe.

Yet, with conclusion and implementation of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and the absence of any long-range missile testing by Iran, that threat has receded far beyond the 2018 deadline for declaring operational more advanced missile defenses in Poland. For Moscow, the continued construction there constitutes confirmation of long-standing suspicions that these systems are directed against Russia rather than Iran.

In 2014, Russia raised two other allegations of U.S. noncompliance with the INF Treaty. Those are that the United States continued to test missile targets under its ballistic missile defense program that have characteristics similar to intermediate- and shorter-range missiles and that these tests are used to improve key elements of missile systems prohibited under the INF Treaty, and that the United States is increasing the production and use of “heavy strike” unmanned aerial vehicles that conform with the INF Treaty definition of GLCMs.

Soviet inspectors and their American escorts stand among U.S. Pershing II missiles destroyed in accordance with the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in a photo taken January 14, 1989. (Photo credit: MSGT Jose Lopez Jr./U.S. Defense Department)Moscow did not rank the three allegations in terms of seriousness—all were raised in response to U.S. charges—but it appears to regard Aegis Ashore as its best case for arguing U.S. noncompliance. The issue of using INF missiles in missile defense tests had been raised and extensively discussed during previous meetings of the Special Verification Commission (SVC), the body created by the treaty to address alleged violations. There was little mention of the issue subsequently for more than a decade. U.S. use of armed drones was initiated long before Russia expressed concerns that such use violated the INF Treaty.

Dispute Resolution Process

Despite worsening relations between Washington and Moscow and continuing belligerence between Moscow and Kiev, Russia and the other active states-parties to the treaty (Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine) agreed to the U.S. request for a meeting of the SVC in Geneva to take place on November 15-16, 2016. This 30th meeting of the SVC constituted the first session held since 2003 and took place more than two years after the United States levied public charges of noncompliance against Russia. Few details were released on the content of the discussions, and no follow-on meeting has been announced. It is reasonable to assume that little substantive progress was made in this short session. Nonetheless, the parties’ decision finally to engage the treaty’s designated mechanism for resolving compliance issues is a positive development.

Activating the SVC mechanism was consistent with the recommendation in last June’s report of the Russian-U.S.-German Deep Cuts Commission, titled “Back from the Brink.”6 The group of former government officials and arms control experts called for “supplementing ongoing diplomatic dialogue with technical expertise, either by convening the [SVC] or a separate bilateral experts group.”7 In order to achieve satisfactory resolution, political authorities need to provide impetus for continuing work at the technical level.

As this report advised, it will be necessary for future meetings of technical experts to resolve outstanding compliance issues. Although the principal obstacle to moving toward resolution is the current lack of political will, the groundwork now has been laid for engaging technical experts. Among the elements:

•   Technical experts could work out language making clear the difference between prohibited intermediate-range ballistic missiles and permitted target missiles for missile defense tests.

•   While armed unmanned aerial vehicles, which Russia and the United States are developing and deploying, do not clearly fit the treaty definition of cruise missiles, their differences could be more clearly spelled out in language drawn up by technical experts working under SVC auspices. The separate category of weapons, so identified, could be subject to future negotiations with the purpose of limiting their scope. 

•   Transparency measures could be established with respect to the MK-41 Aegis missile defense launchers deployed in Romania and to be deployed in Poland. Russian inspectors could be invited for initial on-site examination of the system and subsequent periodic visits to ensure that no banned INF Treaty categories of missiles were being deployed. The United States and host government might tie invitations for such visits to reciprocal inspection visits to Russia to resolve suspicions about GLCM deployments. 

•   It may not be possible to conclusively establish whether GLCM tests alleged by the United States had occurred and the parameters of the violation, but it should be less difficult to employ national technical means to establish whether new Russian GLCMs have been deployed. Moreover, on-site inspection measures could be devised that would increase confidence that such deployments had not taken place or were being reversed.

It is still possible to find ways to restore the health of the INF Treaty using properly structured discussion of compliance issues in the SVC, fusing political will with the application of technical expertise. U.S. willingness to allow Russian access to deployed MK-41 Aegis launchers and Russian willingness to accept on-site monitoring of SSC-8 GLCM launchers at test sites and challenge inspections at suspect deployment sites could lead to a breakthrough in the current compliance stalemate.

If measures can be found to differentiate launchers that appear to be capable of launching cruise missiles or missile defense interceptors or to differentiate cruise missiles from armed drones that may have similar missions and characteristics in the future, it will help clear away obstacles to restoring the health of the INF Treaty and open up possibilities in other areas.

Political Environment

“Fixing” the INF Treaty will require political initiative in Washington and Moscow. Unfortunately, in neither capital is the current political environment favorable for resolving the compliance issues and removing the obstacles to progress in nuclear arms control. Disputes over Russian actions in Ukraine and Syria, along with questions about Moscow’s alleged efforts to tilt the U.S. presidential election in Trump’s favor, weigh on relations between the two superpowers.

During his successful campaign for president, Trump frequently expressed admiration for Putin’s strength and leadership. As president-elect, he continued to praise Putin and chose a secretary of state who had extensive successful business dealings with Russia’s leadership. For his part, Putin made favorable gestures toward the incoming U.S. president, including a decision not to impose reciprocal measures following President Barack Obama’s late-stage expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats in response to alleged Russian interference in the U.S. presidential election.

Yet, in the early days of the new administration, a significant fissure is emerging within and between the executive and legislative branches on the conduct of U.S.-Russian relations. Although the Republican Party controls the White House, the Senate, and the House of Representatives, no consensus has formed on policies toward Russia.

Many key members of Congress have expressed alarm over alleged Russian hacking activities, deep skepticism of Putin’s motives, and hostility to the idea of bilateral cooperation. Only two days after publication of news reports that Russia had deployed illicit GLCMs, Senators Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) introduced legislation that would allow U.S. countermeasures, including the development of similar systems.8 Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), chairman of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, asked at a Mar. 8 hearing that the U.S. military provide Congress with response options by the end of the month.

Responding to Violation

As with INF Treaty issues during the Cold War, the views of U.S. allies in Europe are critical to successful resolution of the current compliance issue. Any U.S. move to violate the INF Treaty in response to a Russian violation would be likely to elicit deep divisions in NATO and to provide Moscow with an excuse to withdraw from the treaty.

An undated photograph shows a former Russian RSD-10 “Pioneer” ballistic missile system, a nuclear weapon known in the West as an SS-20, that was eliminated by the INF Treaty on display at the Kapustin Yar museum in Znamensk, Russia. (Photo credit: Leonidl/Wikimedia Commons)Meanwhile, Russia and the United States are under increasing diplomatic pressure from the majority of non-nuclear-weapon states for failing to make sufficient progress on eliminating their nuclear weapons, as called for in the NPT. At the UN General Assembly on December 23, 113 states voted to convene a UN conference in 2017 “to negotiate a legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination.”9 Growth in the perception that the INF Treaty, one of the signal achievements in nuclear disarmament, is unraveling could strengthen international support for the nuclear weapons ban talks that Washington and Moscow vigorously oppose.

The appropriate advice to the White House and Congress at this stage therefore would be “first, do no harm.” Continued Russian deployment of SSC-8 GLCMs will be increasingly difficult to hide and deny, and Russia should not be given cover by the United States committing reciprocal violations of the treaty.

A wiser course to pursue would be in the realm of arms control initiatives that could be mutually advantageous to Washington and Moscow and supported by the international community.

Broaden the Negotiations

Given the apparently weak political support in Russia for preserving the INF Treaty, it may be necessary to exploit Russia’s greater interest in keeping a lid on U.S. strategic arms and preventing the enlargement of strategic missile defenses, which could jeopardize Russia’s nuclear deterrent. Putin has signaled Russia’s continuing interest in strategic constraints, reportedly urging a five-year extension of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) during his initial telephone conversation with Trump in January. Putin presumably understands the implications of U.S. “fuzing” improvements for counterforce strikes10 and the U.S. numerical advantage in strategic warhead upload capacity. Moreover, his interest in constraining U.S. missile defenses is manifest.

One way to compensate for the leverage Russia may have gained from deploying GLCMs is to strengthen the linkage between strategic, INF, and missile defense negotiations, as was done in the Geneva nuclear and space talks initiated in 1985. Such negotiations also could seek to extend existing INF Treaty limits on delivery systems to all nonstrategic nuclear weapons. Steven Pifer has suggested a limit on deployed strategic warheadsthat would be augmented with an overall limit on all nuclear warheads in U.S. and Russian arsenals, including those used with nonstrategic nuclear weapons.11

Addressing Problems

Another way to revive the INF Treaty would be to convert the GLCM ban to a limit on all nuclear-tipped INF-range missiles by deeming the warheads on such systems to be “strategic,” prohibiting all nuclear-armed missile deployments, or banning all INF nuclear warheads altogether. Any of these options could be accommodated within Pifer’s tiered nuclear arms control framework.

A U.S. soldier fires December 1, 2016, during the North Atlantic Treaty Organization training exercise hosted by Lithuania known as Iron Sword that involved almost 4,000 soldiers from 11 NATO countries. NATO’s decision to rotate four multinational combat battalions through Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland has drawn Russian complaints that such activities constitute a new security threat that will require countermeasures. (Photo credit: NATO)Several knotty INF Treaty problems could be addressed through the denuclearization of cruise missiles while advancing progress on nuclear disarmament overall. Ongoing trends in weapons development exacerbate the treaty compliance issues now in dispute because of the newer weapons’ similarities to weapons banned by the treaty. One of the weaknesses built into the treaty was the differential treatment of nearly identical land-attack cruise missiles based on the nature of their launch platforms. All ground-based INF-range cruise missiles were banned; all air- and sea-launched cruise missiles (ALCMs and SLCMs) with similar capabilities were unconstrained.12 As technology advances and launchers become more interchangeable, these dissolving system boundaries between ALCMs, SLCMs, and GLCMs and the absence of cruise missile limits in New START undermine the effectiveness of nuclear arms control limits.

Washington and Moscow appeared committed to withdrawing all land-attack nuclear SLCMs under the nonbinding Presidential Nuclear Initiatives of 1991-1992. Although the United States withdrew its tactical nuclear weapons from surface ships, attack submarines, and naval aircraft and phased out its nuclear-armed SLCMs entirely, Russia is believed to be continuing its deployment on submarines and surface warships.

Both countries continue to deploy nuclear-armed ALCMs in their strategic arsenals. Russia is equipping its heavy bombers with new nuclear-tipped Kh-102 ALCMs. The United States is planning to replace its current ALCMs, launched from strategic bombers, with the nuclear-capable long-range stand-off cruise missile.

Yet, the long-range stand-off missile program has generated vigorous opposition in the United States among many security experts, including former Defense Secretary William Perry,13who consider the program unnecessary and destabilizing. California’s senior senator, Dianne Feinstein (D), has consequently called for a global ban on all nuclear-tipped cruise missiles.14 Even Trump’s defense secretary, Jim Mattis, conspicuously failed to endorse the program during his confirmation hearings.

Moscow’s willingness to consider precluding nuclear-armed systems may be more plausible than it has previously appeared. The Russian military has been following the course of the U.S. military, placing increased emphasis on highly accurate, conventionally armed cruise missiles, reducing the requirements for its nonstrategic nuclear forces.

The Deep Cuts Commission pointed toward exploiting this trend in recommending that the United States and Russia “address the destabilizing effects of nuclear-armed cruise missiles.”15Expanding the INF Treaty regime by banning all nuclear-tipped INF-range cruise missiles would allow the parties to leapfrog current compliance disputes and Moscow to escape the diplomatic cul-de-sac into which it has backed itself. A nuclear cruise missile ban also would close the ALCM loophole in New START’s treatment of the air-launched leg of the strategic triad, which benefits the United States disproportionately.16

To extend limits on all nuclear-armed cruise missiles, data would be exchanged on the disposition of all ALCMs, SLCMs, and GLCMs capable of nuclear weapons delivery. As an interim measure, all nuclear-armed cruise missile warheads would be de-mated and consolidated in a few, heavily monitored storage facilities. Although the unprecedented transparency measures necessary to achieve high confidence in ultimately achieving warhead elimination would be difficult to negotiate, interim measures to securely isolate warheads from their delivery systems would be easier. As the INF Treaty demonstrated, confirming the complete absence of systems is often less challenging than trying to count the number deployed.

Just as many of the INF Treaty inspection protocol provisions were incorporated into START nearly verbatim, finding the means to resolve contemporary INF Treaty compliance issues and devise measures to ensure the absence of deployed nuclear warheads can contribute to negotiating additional reductions in aggregate strategic arsenals. Much applicable research has been performed in recent years on methods to verify arms control limits on nuclear warheads.17

As NATO and the Soviet Union discovered in the 1980s, effective constraints on INF missiles are an essential component of strategic arms control. The extensive transparency measures of the INF Treaty, including data exchanges, on-site monitoring, and challenge inspections, and the decision to create a ban rather than a limit on the most destabilizing systems were critical milestones on the path toward concluding the first treaty to reduce strategic arms. INF arms control led the way then, and it can do so again.


1.   Steve Holland, “Trump Wants to Expand U.S. Nuclear Arsenal, Make It ‘Top of the Pack,’” Reuters, February 23, 2017. 

2.   Michael Gordon, “Russia Had Deployed Missile Barred by Treaty, U.S. General Tells Congress,” The New York Times, March 8, 2017.

3.   Frederik Pleitgen, Alla Eshchenko, and Laura Smith-Spark, “Russia Denies Deploying Cruise Missile in Treaty Breach,” CNN, March 9, 2017, http://www.cnn.com/2017/03/09/europe/russia-us-cruise-missile-treaty/.

4.   Michael R. Gordon, “Russian Cruise Missile, Deployed Secretly, Violates Treaty, Officials Say,” The New York Times, February 14, 2017.

5.   The BGM-109G ground-launched cruise missile banned by the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty was a variant of the Tomahawk.

6.   Deep Cuts Commission, “Back From the Brink: Toward Restraint and Dialogue Between Russia and the West,” June 2016, http://deepcuts.org/images/PDF/Third_Report_of_the_Deep_Cuts_Commission_English.pdf.

7.   Ibid., pp. 9, 25.

8.   Michael D. Regan, “Republican Bills Counter Russia’s Apparent Violation of Nuclear Arms Treaty,” NewsHour, February 18, 2017.

9.   UN General Assembly, A/RES/71/258, December 23, 2016.

10.   Hans M. Kristensen, Matthew McKinzie, and Theodore A. Postol, “How U.S. Nuclear Force Modernization Is Undermining Strategic Stability: The Burst-Height Compensating Super-Fuze,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, March 1, 2017.

11.   Steven Pifer, “Nuclear Arms Control Choices for the Next Administration,” Brookings Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Series Paper, No. 13 (October 2016), https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/acnpi_20161025_arms_control_choices_final.pdf.

12.   When the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) entered into force, air-launched cruise missiles (ALCMs) became subject to the warhead limits attributed to deployed intercontinental ballistic missiles, deployed submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and deployed heavy bombers; but under the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), ALCMs were no longer counted under deployed warhead limits.

13.   William J. Perry and Andy Weber, “Mr. President, Kill the New Cruise Missile,” The Washington Post, October 15, 2015. 

14.   Dianne Feinstein, “There’s No Such Thing as ‘Limited’ Nuclear War,” The Washington Post, March 5, 2017.

15.   Deep Cuts Commission, “Back From the Brink,” p. 26.

16.   Unlike START, which had a separate sublimit combining deployed missile warheads with ALCMs attributed to heavy bombers, New START counts each heavy bomber as equivalent to one strategic ballistic missile warhead, no matter how many ALCMs it carries. U.S. bombers carry substantially more than their Russian counterparts.

17.   Such research is conducted by a variety of organizations, such as the United Kingdom’s Verification Research, Training and Information Centre and the Nuclear Futures Laboratory of Princeton University in the United States. The UK/Norwegian Initiative’s working paper submitted at the 2015 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference is an example of the kind of research conducted on improving nuclear warhead verification measures. See 2015 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, “The United Kingdom-Norway Initiative: Further Research Into the Verification of Nuclear Warhead Dismantlement,” NPT/CONF.2015/WP.31, April 22, 2015.

Greg Thielmann is a retired U.S. Foreign Service Officer, who worked on intermediate-range missile arms control issues in the U.S. Department of State, participating in the initial round of negotiations on the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. He was subsequently an office director in the State Department’s intelligence bureau, senior staffer on the Senate Intelligence Committee, and senior fellow at the Arms Control Association.


It may be necessary to exploit Russia’s interest in preventing the enlargement of strategic missile defenses.

The Complex and Increasingly Dangerous Nuclear Weapons Geometry of Asia


By Greg Thielmann
July 2016

Download PDF

While much of the world’s attention is focused on efforts to halt the nuclear and missile tests of North Korea, the nuclear arsenals and ambitions of India, Pakistan, and China also pose significant dangers and deserve more attention.

The complicated nuclear weapons geometry of Asia extends from the subcontinent to the other side of the world. While Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is designed to counter India’s conventional and nuclear forces, New Delhi measures its own nuclear weapons program against that of China. Beijing, in turn, judges the adequacy of its nuclear arsenal against the threat it perceives from the United States’ strategic offensive and defensive capabilities. And in its efforts to mitigate the ballistic missile threat from North Korea, the United States and its allies in the region are expanding their strategic and theater missile defense capabilities.

In order to fully understand how the pace and direction of nuclear proliferation can be influenced, the interconnections of these countries must be considered, along with the kinds of nuclear weapons they have at their disposal.


Asian states Pakistan, India, China, and North Korea comprise four of the world's nine nuclear-armed states. The interconnections of these countries must be considered to fully understand how nuclear nonproliferation can be influenced.

Assessing Threats: Where You Stand Depends on Where You Sit—Remarks By Greg Thielmann to DIAA/DCOR



Assessing Threats: Where You Stand Depends on Where You Sit

By Greg Thielmann, Senior Fellow, Arms Control Association
Presentation to the Defense Intelligence Alumni Association and
the Diplomats and Consular Officers Retired

Washington, DC
July 27, 2016

In devising a title for my presentation today, I borrowed a phrase popularized by Graham Allison in his 1971 book on the Cuban Missile Crisis, Essence of Decision.  I suspect that every public policy student in the 1970s is familiar with it: “Where you stand depends on where you sit.”

As everyone in this audience appreciates, the “rational actor model” does not explain everything that happens inside government or between nation-states.  So even though the discipline of intelligence analysis is built on an ethos of objectivity, I don’t think I’m going out on a limb to argue that assessing threats is no exception to Allison’s aphorism.  I’d like to reflect on some threat assessments I’ve witnessed during my career in the executive and legislative branches of government. 

Backing into Threat Assessment

I backed into threat assessment in my first full-time job with the federal government.  Having just received my Masters Degree in Public Policy, I was hired as a budget examiner in the National Security Division of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB).  My task was to monitor a $4 billion line item, Navy Research and Development, and look for ways to save money on the function.  (Where I sat certainly influenced where I stood on assessing the threat!)

One of the things that I learned very quickly was that nearly all U.S. Navy R&D spending was then being justified by the need to stay ahead of Soviet military forces.  The Soviets were assessed to pose the only serious challenge to the U.S. Navy for control of the seas and for forcing entry on land.  I was told that Soviet warships were newer than America’s; they were armed with faster torpedoes and more capable surface-to-surface missiles; Soviet submarines were more numerous than their American counterparts; they could dive deeper and travel faster, and were double-hulled and hence less vulnerable to attack. Soviet anti-aircraft defenses were described as the most formidable in the world, and Soviet Backfire medium-range bombers could actually fly all the way to the continental U.S.

Exaggerating the Threat

As I gradually learned about the numerous advantages the U.S. and its allies enjoyed in the maritime realm over the Warsaw Pact, I became suspicious of the way the way the Soviet threat was being portrayed, and began to realize two things about DoD characterizations of foreign threats.

  • First, senior DoD officials and military commanders lean toward prudent worst-case analyses, and justifiably so because underestimating an enemy can be disastrous if deterrence fails and war occurs.
  • Second, OSD and the U.S. military have a vested, bureaucratic interest in exaggerating foreign capabilities to Congress, because doing so tends to increase appropriations for defense.

It was, therefore, unsurprising that the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) and the service intelligence agencies would paint the threat in more dire terms than the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) or the State Department’s intelligence bureau, INR.  The latter two entities, I concluded, were consistently more objective in characterizing the threat.

After two years in OMB, I began a 25-year career in the Foreign Service, often working in political-military jobs at home and abroad.  In two of my last three tours working for the State Department, I served in INR, where assessing nuclear threats was my principal focus.

My exposure to the U.S. intelligence community, both at State and later on the Senate Intelligence Committee, contributed to my current view that national threat assessments, though dominated by the supposedly unbiased criteria of the CIA, were also skewed toward “worst case” outcomes rather than those judged “most likely.”

One of my “take-aways” from witnessing the threat estimation process up-close over the years was that even the CIA had a vested interest in exaggerating threats:

  • After all, the more dangerous the world, the more necessary it was to have a large and powerful intelligence establishment; and
  • An organization that warns against all manner of calamities is more likely to be able to claim “I told you so” if something bad happens.

Worst-Case Thinking

I think we can all agree that nasty surprises send huge shock waves throughout the national security establishment.  The mother of all such surprises was, of course, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. But there have been other notable examples since then -- China’s intervention in the Korean War in 1950, the Soviet launch of Sputnik in 1957, the Tet Offensive in 1968, and the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington in 2001.  Indeed, any intelligence analyst’s worst nightmare is failing to provide advanced warning of an adversary’s capability (or plan) to strike.  

And there hasn’t really been any bureaucratic penalty for over-estimating the threat, as the United States did during much of the Cold War – at least not until the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

The Iraq WMD Fiasco

The second U.S. war against Iraq was justified by the need to stop Saddam Hussein’s aggressive pursuit of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction (WMD).  But, of course, we all now know that Saddam’s WMD had been eliminated before the invasion and his ability to reconstitute his WMD programs had been effectively stymied by the UN.

Political Pandering

I realized then that I had underestimated the willingness of the Director of Central Intelligence and other intelligence officials to support the political desires of the White House.  Daily access to President George W. Bush by the DCI and the rapport between them was important to George Tenet.  The numerous visits of Vice President Dick Cheney to CIA had an impact on the agency’s product.  So did the establishment of a DoD Undersecretary for Intelligence, which created a mechanism for bypassing the intelligence community to deliver unvetted intelligence information to the president.

One of the keystones to the Bush administration’s case that Saddam was reconstituting his nuclear weapons program came from intercepting a delivery of high-strength aluminum tubes to Iraq.  The CIA said these tubes were intended to be used for centrifuges in the production of highly enriched uranium, a critical material used for nuclear weapons.  The Department of Energy, which operated U.S. nuclear weapons labs, correctly assessed that the tubes were not suitable for centrifuges.  (They were actually being used to manufacture artillery rockets.)  INR concurred.

The CIA also assessed that Saddam was importing “yellow cake” from Niger that was needed to manufacture the uranium hexafluoride, which would be fed into the centrifuges.  DOE and INR again challenged the validity of these reports, based on technical analysis and country expertise.

The judgments of the best experts in the U.S. Government on these issues were key to INR’s critical dissent in the 2002 National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq’s WMD Program.  But when the day arrived to finalize (“coordinate”) the estimate, DOE sided with the 15 other members of the intelligence community, delivering what the White House wanted -- the conclusion that Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear weapons program.  INR was thus left to stand alone in disagreeing with the most important judgment in the estimate.  And INR registered it in a conspicuous dissent on the bottom of page one of the Executive Summary at the bottom of the  one-page summary of the estimate that went to the president.

Congressional Cowardice

The U.S. Congress and the press failed to rigorously examine the intelligence on which the administration’s allegations were based.  (The head of INR was never asked to explain his bureau’s dissent in hearings on the NIE held by Congress.)  By mid-October of 2002, following a brief debate, the Congress authorized the use of force against Iraq – an action many Members of Congress hoped would persuade Saddam to allow the return of UN inspectors.  This pressure, backed by a UN Security Council resolution in November, was successful.  The inspectors returned at the end of the month, resumed on-cite inspections, and began filling in the information, which had been absent since their expulsion in 1998.  But their findings over the next three months were spurned by the administration and largely ignored by Congress and the press. 


The invasion was launched in March 2003, but no WMD was found.  The baleful legacy for the Middle East and the U.S. in terms of lives lost and treasure squandered is continuing to be felt, both at home and abroad.  And the decision to invade has now been labeled by people from both political parties as one of the biggest foreign policy blunders in post-Cold War history.

Although the systemic failures ultimately led to a significant reform of the U.S. intelligence community structure and process, those administration officials who were culpable for willfully distorting an already flawed intelligence product were never held to account – either at the polls or in their privileged government positions.

So too did most in Congress escape retribution for their dereliction of duty in failing to revisit the previous year’s authorization to use military force before the invasion.  (In my admittedly biased view, it should have been clear in February 2003 to anyone paying close attention that every evidentiary pillar of support for the administration’s case was collapsing.) 

The Fantasical Thinking of Star Wars

Another insight about threat estimates I’ve gained over the years was the inability of many politicians and military officials to put themselves in the shoes of their adversaries.  This means that decisions made on military measures to meet the threat frequently do not adequately consider either the adversary’s perspective or likely response.

The classical case for me is the U.S. decision in 2002 to withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.  That treaty, then 30 years old, had created specific limits on defenses against strategic offensive ballistic missiles, a necessary condition for securing and sustaining reductions in U.S. and Soviet (or Russian) nuclear weapons.  The ABM Treaty had facilitated the limits and reductions achieved by the SALT and START processes.

Moreover, negotiators had agreed on a protocol to the ABM Treaty, which established a dividing line between the strategic missile defense interceptors limited in the treaty, and the theater and tactical missile defense interceptors, which would not affect the strategic balance.  Hence, Patriot and THAAD interceptors, which are used to blunt the effectiveness of ballistic missile use against troop formations, port facilities, air bases, and other point targets, could be produced and deployed without limits under the ABM Treaty.

But when the U.S. revoked the ABM Treaty, the Russians refused to ratify the terms of START II – a treaty on strategic offensive systems, which, among other things, would have eliminated all multiple warheads on Russian ICBMs.  Russia reacted as the U.S. did when faced with Soviet strategic defenses in the 1960s; it increased its strategic offensive efforts to compensate and safeguard the viability of its nuclear deterrent.

The intelligence community has been very reticent to include in its threat assessments the obvious point that strategic missile defense deployments lead to strategic missile offense deployments.  There is no empirical evidence that strategic missile defenses discourage proliferators as its proponents assert – whether it is Russia, China, Pakistan, North Korea, or Iran.  And yet, the policy community moves forward with what one missile defense proponent this month termed: “the long-running principled opposition to ‘reject any negotiated restraints’ on missile defenses. 

The Perfidious Persians

In my third and most recent historical example, I find evidence of both assessment problems I’ve wanted to highlight.  In describing  Iran’s ballistic missile program over the last two decades, the U.S. Government has both overestimated the technological threat and underestimated Iran’s determination to thwart U.S. policy on ballistic missiles. 

Ballistic Missile Balderdash I

I go back aways on this issue.  One of my most interesting professional endeavors was to participate in coordination of a 1999 National Intelligence Estimate on the Foreign Ballistic Missile Threat.  This estimate constituted an official reaction to the extremely influential report on the ballistic missile threat in the previous year of the Rumsfeld Commission.  That commission essentially predicted in the spring of 1998 that, within five years, North Korea, Iraq, and Iran would be able to develop ICBMs (a missile capable of delivering a nuclear warhead 5,500+ km).  An attempted North Korean launch of a satellite a few months later seemed to many to validate Rumsfeld’s dire forecast.

The 1999 NIE assessed that a North Korean ICBM could be launched at any time, an Iranian or Iraqi ICBM could be launched between 2005 and 2010.  In terms of likelihood, the estimate judged that, by 2015: a North Korean ICBM was most likely, an Iranian ICBM was probable; an Iraqi ICBM was possible.

The Rumsfeld Commission report and the NIE helped kill the ABM Treaty and, as collateral damage, the START II agreement.  They helped solidify the congressional view of U.S. missile defense requirements that has lasted 17 years.  They were also spectacularly wrong.  None of these three countries has fielded an ICBM.  When Iraq was invaded in 2003, it was working on a 200 km range ballistic missile. North Korea has come closest, with several launches of a large space rocket that could be used as the basis for developing an ICBM, but the only type of “ICBMs” it has paraded have never flown.  Iran has never tested a missile with a range over 2,000 km. The U.S. military now says that Iran could field an ICBM as soon as 2020, but it is unlikely to have a nuclear warhead for 10-15 years, because of the Iran nuclear deal.

Of course, having squirmed in the uncomfortable position of dissenting from the majority estimates during my years as an intelligence analyst, I jumped on the chance to remind the public in the summer of 2003 (after retiring from the State Department) that Rumsfeld’s five years had expired, asking: where are the ICBMs?  I also enjoyed authoring an Arms Control Association blogpost in 2013, facetiously asking: “What Kind of Glasses Do You Need to See Iranian ICBMs?”

Ballistic Missile Balderdash II

As if exaggerating Iran’s missile prowess was not enough, we now seem to be implying that the Iranians are acting irresponsibly and deceitfully in improving their short- and medium-range ballistic missile force.  This failure to understand and predict Iranian behavior may be more appropriately blamed on the Congress and the press, but both have been aided and abetted by the intelligence community’s silence. 

In the 8-year war that started with Iraq’s invasion of Iran, Saddam Hussein had weapons superiority over Iran across the spectrum: more modern aircraft, missiles, and tanks – and in greater quantities; and an arsenal of chemical weapons along with a willingness to use them.  It was Iraq, which initiated the ballistic missile attacks against Iranian cities.  It was Iraq, which violated the 1925 Protocol against chemical weapons use.  Yet the West supported Iraq in the conflict.

To expect Iran not only to accept the Iran nuclear deal, but also a ban on all medium-range conventionally-armed ballistic missiles, is extremely naïve.  Such missiles are Iran’s only direct deterrent against nuclear-armed Israel.  Moreover, they serve to counterbalance -- although only in small measure – the much larger and more modern air forces of potential enemies Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the U.S.

Yet the tenor of discussion in Washington about the Iran nuclear deal gives the impression that this agreement between Iran and the P5+1 includes limits on ballistic missiles.  Politicians assert incorrectly that Iran is “violating” the deal and/or acting irresponsibly as a regional power to even test missiles with ranges over 300 km.  Was anyone in the intelligence community expecting the Iranians to abandon their medium-range missile program?  Did anyone in the IC fail to understand the compromise resulting in watered down language on ballistic missiles in the new UN Security Council resolution?   Well, I guess the answers to these rhetorical questions are classified, but I think the answer to both is “no.”


My point in these case studies is not to suggest that prognostication is easy or that I have a perfect track record.  (In fact, I joke about my good luck that some of my correct calls have been publicized, while my mistakes remain classified.)

But I would advise that, before one relies on threat assessments, it is wise to ask about the track record of the assessor, to ask for the kind of evidence on which projections are based, and the probability attached to whatever horrendous outcome the assessor says is possible.  Finally, one must look realistically at how the adversary will respond to U.S. actions.  Otherwise, if we’re not careful, we will prepare for a future that is very unlikely – and in a way, which leads to an outcome that leaves us worse off than before. 


In relying on threat assessments, it is wise to ask about the track records, evidence, and probabilities.

NATO’s Missile Defense Plan Must Adapt to the Real World

This op-ed originally appeared in The Hill. One of the biggest challenges for NATO at its July 8-9 summit will be to adopt measures that reassure allies in the face of Russian intimidation without provoking an escalation in already high tensions between Russia and the West. Given that missile defense has been a driver of tensions between Moscow and Washington since Ronald Reagan launched his Star Wars plan to render ballistic missiles “impotent and obsolete,” one of the best ways to achieve reassurance and avoid provocation would be to alter the existing timetable for deploying more capable...

U.S. Missile Defenses in Europe: Move the Ball, Not the Goal Posts

Within the last decade, the United States has made several important adjustments to its plans for deploying missile defenses in Europe. In light of the ongoing implementation of the Iran nuclear deal and an objective assessment of Iran’s missile program, it is high time to make another one—suspending the deployment of more advanced Aegis missile defense interceptors to Poland. Defending Europe Against Iran In September 2009, President Barack Obama announced a four-part “European Phased Adaptive Approach” (EPAA) to deploying U.S. missile defenses in Europe against the emerging ballistic...

North Korea’s Nuclear and Missile Tests Set the Stage for Party Congress

In the four months leading up to the North Korean Workers’ Party Congress convening on May 6, the country’s young dictator, Kim Jong Un, has ordered up a dazzling display of the country’s putative prowess in nuclear weaponry. The mixed results of nuclear and missile testing may succeed in impressing Kim’s domestic audience and alarming or inciting his neighbors to the south. But the testing also demonstrates that North Korea’s achievements fall far short of its claims and that political goals rather than technological imperatives are driving weapons development programs. All Eyes on the...


Subscribe to RSS - Greg Thielmann